By Kevin Sullivan and Josh White
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 29, 2008
LONDON, May 28 -- More than 100 countries reached agreement Wednesday to ban cluster bombs, controversial weapons that human rights groups deplore but that the United States, which did not join the ban, calls an integral, legitimate part of its arsenal.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose personal intervention Wednesday led to final agreement among representatives of 111 countries gathered in Dublin, called the ban a "big step forward to make the world a safer place."
The weapons consist of canisters packed with small bombs, or "bomblets," that spread over a large area when a canister is dropped from a plane or fired from the ground. While the bomblets are designed to explode on impact, they frequently do not. Civilians, particularly children, are often maimed or killed when they pick up unexploded bombs, sometimes years later.
In staying away from Dublin, U.S officials argued that the talks were not the right forum in which to address the issue and that cluster bombs remain an important part of the country's weaponry. "While the United States shares the humanitarian concerns of those in Dublin," said Navy Cmdr. Bob Mehal, a Pentagon spokesman, "cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility, and their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk."
The U.S. military says that it keeps the weapons in its arsenal as a defense against advancing armies, a strategy closely linked to conventional Cold War approaches to conflict, and that it has not used the bombs since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. U.S. officials argue that technological advances will ensure that future cluster bombs reliably explode or quickly disable themselves, so they will not be a hazard to civilians later.
Israel carried out the largest recent use of cluster bombs, dropping large numbers on southern Lebanon in its 2006 war with Hezbollah militiamen. Many of the bombs did not explode immediately and have left a lasting humanitarian hazard.
Advocates of the ban said they hope the agreement, which was supported by rich nations and poor from Scandinavia to Africa, will have the same effect as the 1997 ban on land mines, reducing use even among non-signatory countries.
Simon Conway, co-chair of the Cluster Munitions Coalition, said that Burma is the only nation still using land mines and that the United States has not planted a single one since the ban went into effect.
Already, controversy over cluster bombs has led the United States to stop exporting them for now -- a law that went into force this year bars the foreign sale of cluster bombs that have less than a 99 percent detonation or disabling rate, conditions that current versions of the weapons do not meet.
And as a matter of policy, the NATO alliance does not use cluster munitions in Afghanistan.
The Dublin meetings were part of a process begun in February 2007 in Oslo. The nations met again in Lima, Peru, in May 2007; Vienna in December; and Wellington, New Zealand, in January.
"We decided not to go to Oslo," Stephen D. Mull, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told reporters last week, "because we don't want to give weight to a process that we think is ultimately flawed, because we don't think that any international effort is going to succeed unless you get the major producers and the users of these weapons at the table."
The United States argues that the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is a more appropriate forum in which to talk about cluster munitions with major world powers at the table, Mull said.
Rachel Stohl, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, said the Pentagon gets "nervous" over discussions on restricting use of a weapons system it has in its arsenal and has used in previous conflicts.
She said the fact that in the past five years no situation has arisen in which U.S. forces have needed cluster bombs should show that they are not critical to modern warfare.
"The fact that these 100-plus countries have been able to come together and develop a convention text signifies that the rest of the world is ready to move forward with international agreements that are pro-humanity," Stohl said. "In the end, the victims of cluster munitions have won."
The Convention on Cluster Munitions, as approved in Dublin, calls on signatories to stop producing and using cluster bombs and to destroy all stockpiles within eight years.
Despite pleas from Washington, Britain endorsed the plan, along with other close U.S. allies and members of NATO. But the United States will no doubt welcome a provision that allows states that adopt the treaty to "engage in military cooperation and operations with States not parties to this Convention." That would let signatories partner with the Americans in military and humanitarian operations, despite U.S. use of cluster munitions, without penalty.
Conway said that although the United States did not attend the conference, it worked behind the scenes. This provision, he said, was "undoubtedly the product of U.S. pressure."
White reported from Washington. Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.